Noelle London has always had a passion for supporting entrepreneurial communities. After a stint in the Peace Corps teaching entrepreneurship, she landed in Washington D.C. connecting founders through 1776, an international startup catalyst program and funding organization. But with a desire to move to a city with a sustainable and growing ecosystem, she sought out a new opportunity.
She picked Atlanta. Now, two weeks into her new position as Manager of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Invest Atlanta, her excitement for the city is palpable.
“I’m originally from South Carolina, and when I started looking through the stats of Atlanta, I was pretty blown away by every box that the ecosystem checks and had no idea about everything happening in Atlanta,” says London.
That newfound appreciation will serve her well — London will be at the helm of some of the city’s most innovative projects at Invest Atlanta, Atlanta’s Economic Development Authority. While continuing projects passed down by her predecessor Sam Adams, including Smart City pilots, she hopes to build bigger resource kits for startups and enterprises to fill in gaps she sees (connections to investments, talent, and more) and build a stronger support system. London says those gaps can be the difference between retaining a company or losing it to another city.
Here, London shares more about why she chose Atlanta, which of her list of Invest Atlanta projects she’s most excited about, and how can Invest Atlanta help you move your business forward.
Tell me a little more about your background and how you ended up here in Atlanta.
When I graduated from college, I wanted to work in international economic development. I joined the Peace Corps and they assigned me to teach entrepreneurship in Nicaragua for two and a half years. For me, that was really eye-opening because I realized that I didn’t necessarily need to build huge infrastructure projects to make an impact in the community. Entrepreneurs are ambitious and motivated and understand best the challenges in their communities. I wanted to support their endeavors and give them the resources that they need to be successful.
From Nicaragua, I went on to support global entrepreneurs from Indonesia to Ecuador, from Austin, TX to Washington, DC. As someone who wants to launch their own company in the future, I’ve been so fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from startups that I’ve worked with and learn from their journeys when building their companies. Dusting off my past work in ecosystem mapping, I started thinking about where I wanted to move next to, at some point, start my own company.
What are the boxes that Atlanta can check for entrepreneurs?
Atlanta is not the “next” Silicon Valley, nor should it be. We can be honest that currently you don’t see the investment dollars that you’re going to find in New York, Boston, San Francisco.
However, beyond questions of funding, the second question I used to get most often from entrepreneurs was the mysterious question of traction. When you think about where you can find your first customers, where you can make sales, where you can test a pilot — there are very few cities around the country that have this concentration of corporate headquarters, corporate innovation offices, plus the number of incubators and accelerator programs that are here. You have a supportive ecosystem to support your company’s growth and to test, validate and pilot your products here.
How does Invest Atlanta fit within that support system?
Invest Atlanta is the City of Atlanta’s economic development agency. We have both an economic development and community development focus. On the Economic Development side where I sit, Invest Atlanta plays a critical role in business attraction and retention by leveraging a toolkit of resources that make Atlanta an attractive place to set up shop and grow here. In light of the level of startup and tech activity in the city, this role was created a year ago recognizing that as the City of Atlanta, we needed to understand how we provide tools to support the startup ecosystem.
Atlanta shouldn’t just be a step along the journey. We want startups to feel supported with resources to build their company. There are a number of amazing support organizations for startups in Atlanta, and as Invest Atlanta, we want to understand where there may be gaps and how we can fill those. With students, for example, how do we build a strong pipeline of tech talent and provide the right mentorship? With startups that are going up for the Series B, how do we help connect them to the right people?
How will you be following your predecessor and making the position your own?
It’s an exciting time. Right now, I’m listening a lot. There are many organizations doing important work and I want to learn about what they are doing, amplify their work, tell their stories, and connect them in places where they need support. As I mentioned, I’m impressed with the Invest Atlanta team’s work in providing small business loans and on the attraction and retention of large companies. How do we expand our toolkit of resources to entrepreneurs and make sure that they are designed with the entrepreneur in mind?
Sam Adams was my predecessor and did a wonderful job building this position from scratch. One of the big things that he was working on was finding opportunities for startups to test and validate Smart Cities pilots. With startups that are within Atlanta and around the country, how can they view the City of Atlanta as a viable customer? This is important work and I’m looking forward to continuing to find the very best solutions to the city’s most pressing needs and advocating for those pilots at the city level.
What are some opportunities you’ve seen within the Atlanta ecosystem, as a newcomer?
There are many. The first is that Atlanta has a real opportunity to be a leader in inclusive innovation. Given the level of maturity of the ecosystem, we still have the opportunity to mold it to support women and minority founders. We have the chance to build the ecosystem the right way — and the Atlanta way. That also means that as new technology affects our everyday work and the workforce is shifting because of that technology, we are making sure there’s a distribution of those new opportunities across the ecosystem and city. That’s a big part of what brought me here.
Another thing that I’ve been really impressed by so far just in the past two weeks is just the amount of welcome that I’ve received. I’m greatly appreciative of all of those coffee chats, the time, and the advice that Atlanta’s startup community has already given me. Beyond the treasure trove of assets like the number of corporate headquarters in Atlanta, it’s a special city in the level of collaboration amongst the startup ecosystem here. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed that in any other city.
As a previous entrepreneur mentor, what’s your number one advice for entrepreneurs?
I think it’s easier than ever been to be an entrepreneur in a lot of ways, which is a great thing for building early stage companies. Instead of having to build out a website, there are free tools; as you need to build new skill sets, there are online classes. With the rise in startup activity, there are a number of communities forming to support entrepreneurs.
Aside from looking for mentors in those support communities, it’s just as important to build a peer network of entrepreneurs, because it can be pretty lonely to build a company. Having a peer network of people that are going through the same thing is important. Remember that you are not alone and there are a number of entrepreneurs around you going through the same experience.